Bottom’s up… here comes the sun! (Top-down can help, too)

Last Friday I took the afternoon off to have nose-around at the Solar Decathlon competition. Paraphrasing from the website, the competition is run by the United States Department of Energy … for university students, made up of 10 contests that challenge student teams to design and build full-size, solar-powered houses. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends design excellence and smart energy production with innovation, market potential, and energy and water efficiency. It is held every two years; the 2017 competition took place in Denver, Colorado.

I strongly recommend that you take a look around the website, which is very comprehensive, informative and full of great pictures – I used these and my visit to create some educational material (see below). For the purpose of keeping a blog entry concise, I’ll just give my highlights. I’ll also not tell you who won the competition, forcing you to go to the website to find out! 😉

One entry deserved a mention, Team Daytona Beach from Florida almost didn’t make it as they got caught by Hurricane Irma:

Team Alabama’s house is designed to protect it’s residents, not just house them:

One team took a risky approach by turning to concrete as a construction material, but they were convincing!

This tiny house was there just for show; it was cute!

The Swiss Team took the unique approach of making the primary use of their house a community centre:

The part-‘home team’ of UC Berkeley & UC Denver had a house that was visually appealing:

And just across the water from my home (Norfolk, UK) are the Dutch, who had sea-level rise in mind:

UC Davis from California really played on the drought issue, which California is increasingly having, and will have, problems with:

Missouri S&T’s entry, by appearances, kept it simple, but didn’t lack in features:

In the expo tent, I had a lovely chat with a representative from Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD). I’ve been enjoying using their public transport system. It’s fairly efficient with good links and they really are striving towards sustainability. Our discussion compared the Denver system with London, particularly about how public transport systems are often the victims of their own successes. The better they get, the more people use them (great!) but therefore the pressure on it increases too and new or improved solutions are needed. The guys at RTD seem proud of what they have achieved so far, but agree there is a lot of work to do, and it will probably always be that way!

So, in the end, I left with too many ideas for my pipe-dream of a future ’empty-nester’ tiny house! Oh, and I loved the dancing toilets! But for some strange reason I didn’t want to do the ‘taking a pic hugging the mascot’ thing…

Yes, you see that right! There are two human-sized toilets dancing away on the ‘village’ street!

I’ve created an educational resource based on my visit to the Solar Decathlon for those teaching urban sustainability and issues. It’s meant to be used as part of a lesson or independent task such as an extension activity or homework. While it has a eastern UK (Anglia) focus and designed to fit with AQA’s Geography GCSE (8035), it is very relevant for other scales and locales, and to many other Geography and Science syllabuses. Feel free to use and adapt with credit.

Click here if the embed is not working!
Direct download (better format!): 2A.1d Solar Decathlon 2017

It was very pleasing to see an enthusiastic, energetic and engaging way of having bottom-up ideas and creativity being supported from the top-down, in this case support from the US Department of Energy. The question is, of course, what happens next? A cynic may think it was all government publicity, but I’m more hopeful that this shows there is a genuine wish for collaborative and supportive solutions to such 21st century issues.

While the Solar Decathlon is an example of bottom-up meeting top-down half way, perhaps the following example shows what happens when there is complete disengagement; where people feel the only way change is going to happen is from the bottom-up:

My family and I went to a farm’s open day in Longmont a couple of weekends back.

There were stalls selling the local produce, tractor rides and plenty of hay bales to climb over.


There were also some marquees about local initiatives. One marquee housed a local pressure group in opposition to fracking developments, and other to raise awareness of the importance of bees.

Those on the fracking stall were particularly vocal. The City of Longmont did have a moratorium on fracking but this was overturned in 2016 by the State. The local pressure group are not giving up and feel that they have been let down, claiming breaches of various human rights and loss of the democratic process. Local and regional news have covered the issue extensively, and it is clear that the debate is very heated. Regardless of the merits and drawbacks of fracking, and the arguments put out by both sides, it seems clear to me that many local people feel under threat from the top – in the Longmont case how State powers can be used to supersede decisions made by local councils. I’m yet to find a clear example of how the fracking issue can allow locals from the bottom-up collaborate or work towards meeting the powers from the top-down in the middle. But if, dear reader, you are aware of where such a compromise or collaboration has taken place, please do share your example(s) in the comments!


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